Friday, June 8, 2012
At the shouted warning, Hugh Hoyland ducked, with nothing to spare. An egg-sized iron missile clanged against the bulkhead just above his scalp, with force that promised a fractured skull. The speed with which he crouched had lifted his feet from the floor plates. Before his body could settle slowly to the deck, he planted his feet against the bulkhead behind him and shoved. He went shooting down the passageway in a long, flat dive, his knife drawn and ready.
These are the first 85 words - only 85! - of Robert Heinlein's novel, Orphans of the Sky. They are a classic example of what science fictions pros call "incluing." Incluing is the inclusion of telling details in the action of an SF story, details that gradually set up the author's new world. Let's take a look at what Heinlein did.
For those in the know, "mutie" sounds a lot like "mutant" - but that's just a hint, not a solid fact. No, the real solid stuff starts with the "egg-sized iron missile." If it's egg-sized, it's probably not a bullet; it's just a lump of iron. That lump of iron "clangs" against a bulkhead. That tells us that Hugh is in an environment whose technology allows for mass working of iron...but there probably aren't any firearms, or it would have been a bullet coming for him.
Then we hear that Hugh crouches so quickly that his feet lift from the floor plates. That might happen in 1970s Kung Fu movies, but not in a short story from the '40s. And before his body could settle slowly to the deck, he shoves off against the bulkhead. There's only one condition that lets that happen - reduced gravity.
"Hugh Hoyland" is an English enough name so that Hugh is probably a human being. In an environment with worked iron, no firearms, and reduced gravity. He's not on earth. He's not floating in free fall. What the hell is happening?
Within the next two pages, Heinlein's incluing tells us that this is a place where science and religion are the same thing; that gravity increases as one travels down a staircase; that something called the Converter consumes dead bodies...all within the context of non-stop action.
I won't spoil the story by telling you exactly what *is* happening - you should read it for yourself. But as an example of pure, technical skill in SF storytelling, this is the gold standard.